This month marks 50 years since one of the most consequential events in the history of nuclear proliferation — a reminder of the very high stakes that led the international community to prevent additional countries from crossing the nuclear threshold.
On October 16, 1964, China tested its first nuclear weapon, a 16-kiloton bomb detonated at the Lop Nur facility in Inner Mongolia. Documents recently published by George Washington University’s National Security Archive give a sense of some of the uncertainty that followed.
Prior to the test, some US officials doubted China had the capability to build a nuclear weapon. Afterwards, American officials and regional allied governments were left to speculate as to what a nuclear-armed Beijing would mean for the US and for the balance of power in Asia.
The picture that emerges should be a familiar one for anyone who’s followed the North Korean nuclear saga, or even the ongoing Iran negotiations. Anxious allies considered rash and possibly ill-advised military action. Global actors were taken by surprise. Officials wondered how they could make the new landscape work to their advantage. Some believed little had actually changed and the global balance of power wouldn’t be disrupted.
But everyone seemed to generally realise that a confusing new variable had been thrown into a then-fragile global security environment.
Here are some of the most notable reactions from the National Security Archive’s release of 33 documents related to China’s historic first nuclear test.
Taiwanese leaders wanted to launch a US-supported pre-emptive strike on China to prevent Beijing from further developing its nuclear capabilities. If there was one big loser in China’s nuclear test, it was Taiwan. In 1964, the island was home to China’s US-recognised government, and held a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The Taiwanese had to realise a nuclear-armed Beijing would leave the international community with little choice but to eventually shift its recognition to the mainland, something that eventually happened about a decade later.
Taiwan even viewed a nuclear-armed China as a potential existential crisis. A secret State Department telegram sent a week after the test described the ruling party’s read on the event’s significance. “Top leaders have expressed private view that [China] can cause ‘crisis of confidence,’ eroding people’s will to resist [Beijing] on Taiwan and elsewhere.”
Some in Taiwan were looking to a military option: “Among military, already existing awareness of bleak prospects for successful action against mainland in absence of full US cooperation.” Even so, some believed that the prospect of reduced US support, along with Beijing’s gaining military edge, meant “action must therefore be taken now,” with some “among the military in favour of a ‘do or die’ attack even if US should refuse cooperation.”
No such attack was ever launched — Taiwan was outnumbered, possibly outgunned, and didn’t get the US support for an attack that Taipai wanted. The US withdrew recognition of Taiwan in 1979, but the island remains a de-facto independent state, albeit one living under the constant threat of invasion from the mainland.
In the immediate aftermath of the test, US intelligence didn’t know how China had gotten enough weapons-grade Uranium for a bomb. A November 2nd, 1964 “research memorandum” from the State Department’s Office of the Director of Intelligence and Research has an ominous opening line: “Our pre-October 16th estimates did not anticipate that [China] had the capability of producing the U-235 isotope.”
So either China had enrichment capabilities that were significantly more advanced than what the US was aware of, or it obtained its uranium from an unknown outside supplier, most likely the Soviet Union.
Neither possibility was especially comforting. And no explanation seemed sufficient on its own: the memo’s author doubts the Soviets would provide enough U-235 for a bomb, and counters with the possibility of a hidden enrichment facility or advanced capabilities within China’s single known enrichment site on technical grounds.
The paper offers no solution to one of the more important issues the test raised.
Some US officials thought the test was alarming enough to warrant non-proliferation work with the Soviets. The Chinese test came about two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, three years after the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, and at a time when the US was deepening its commitments in South Vietnam — in other words, during a period of nearly unprecedented tension between the US and the Communist bloc.
Still, on October 30, two weeks after the Chinese test, top-level American officials openly discussed the possibility of working with the Soviets to prevent China’s neighbours from going nuclear, perhaps by assuring India that China’s capabilities wouldn’t threaten it. State Department official Leonard Meeker raised the question of whether we should concert assurances with the Soviets;” deputy undersecretary of state Llewellyn Thompson cautioned that “at most, we should sound out the Soviets on their view of the non-proliferation question in light of the Chinese communists’ nuclear explosion.”
American officials believed it was worth trying to work with the country’s enemies to make sure the Chinese nuclear test didn’t set off a larger and even more unpredictable global arms race.
The US military believed its hands were still free in Asia. An assessment from the Joint Chiefs of Staff on December 3rd, 1964, determined “the acquisition by Communist China of nuclear weapons will not, for the indefinite future, alter the real relations of power among the major states, or the balance of military power in Asia.”
The Joint Chiefs believed the US military’s hands were still free in Asia, even with a Chinese bomb. “A [Chinese] nuclear capability need not impose new military restrictions on the US response to aggression in Asia,” the report concluded.
This would become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy — by the end of the 1960s, the US would have hundreds of thousands of combat troops in Vietnam.
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